Star-Spangled Men: America's Ten Worst Presidents.

Author:Hoff, Samuel B.
Position:Review
 
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NATHAN MILLER, Star-Spangled Men: America's Ten Worst Presidents (New York: Scribner, 1998), 272 pp., $23.00 hardcover (ISBN 0-684-83610-6).

Although the end of a century normally produces "best of" lists, Nathan Miller has chosen to evaluate the worst of something: American presidents. He examines ten chief executives in descending order of badness: Jimmy Carter, William Howard Taft, Benjamin Harrison, Calvin Coolidge, Ulysses Grant, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Warren Harding, and Richard Nixon. Noting that those selected were based on "a lifetime of reading American history; graduate study; a career in political journalism on the local, state, and national levels; and as a Capitol Hill staffer; as well an having written two presidential biographies and other books with a political slant" (pp. 15-16), Miller nonetheless refers to his picks as purely subjective. Still, he identifies general qualities of poor presidents together with his own criterion--how badly each damaged the nation he was supposed to serve.

Miller organizes all chapters except the final one into three parts: (1) a rationale for inclusion of each individual, (2) an extended biography of that individual's life and presidency, and (3) an assessment of that individual's performance. Whereas Harrison and Coolidge made Miller's worst ten list for doing nothing, Harding and Nixon were found to have character weaknesses that became public liabilities. Scandals arising from corruption help explain inclusion of Grant, Harding, and Nixon, whereas Johnson's white supremacist attitudes and undermining of Reconstruction were cited for his selection. Pierce, refused renomination by his own party, and Buchanan, who announced at his inauguration that he would not run for reelection, both were unable to halt the slide toward civil war, whereas Taft and Carter had the misfortune of serving directly before and after a major war, respectively. Just as Harrison and Carter shared a predilection with the details of their duties, so were Pierce and Coolidge incapable of handling (or unwilling to handle) the responsibilities of office, according to the author. The pre-presidential careers of Grant, Harding, and Carter were viewed as inadequate preparation for the White House, yet the impressive political resumes of Johnson, Taft, and Nixon did not prevent their ultimate futility as chief executives. Johnson and Coolidge were accidental presidents, having succeeded to office...

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